Papal election stirs Argentina's "dirty war" past

In this April 20, 2010 file photo, people hold up portraits of missing relatives while Argentina's former de facto President and Army chief Reynaldo Bignone speaks with judges during his trial, in Munro, Buenos Aires. JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina Pope Francis is known for his humility, his reluctance to talk about himself. The self-effacement, admirers say, is why he has hardly ever denied one of the harshest allegations against him: That he was among church leaders who actively supported Argentina's murderous dictatorship.

It's without dispute that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, like most other Argentines, failed to openly confront the 1976-1983 military junta while it was kidnapping and killing thousands of people in a "dirty war" to eliminate leftist opponents.

But the new pope's authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, argues that this was a failure of the Roman Catholic Church in general, and that it's unfair to label Bergoglio with the collective guilt that many Argentines of his generation still deal with.

"In some way many of us Argentines ended up being accomplices," at a time when anyone who spoke out could be targeted, Rubin recalled in an interview with The Associated Press just before the papal conclave.

Some leading Argentine human rights activists agree that Bergoglio doesn't deserve to be lumped together with other church figures who were closely aligned with the dictatorship.

Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio speaks at a mass held in Libertador and Sarmiento, Buenos Aires, Argentina in this December 10, 1998 file photo.
MARTIN LUCESOLE/AP Photo

"Perhaps he didn't have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship," Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for documenting the junta's atrocities, said Thursday. "Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship. He can't be accused of that," Perez Esquivel told Radio de la Red in Buenos Aires.

Other activists are angry over the positions Bergoglio, 76, has taken in recent years, as Argentina pursues investigations aimed at exposing those responsible for killing as many as 30,000 people, and finding traces of their victims. Some say he's been more concerned about preserving the church's image than providing evidence for Argentina's many human rights trials.

"There's hypocrisy here when it comes to the church's conduct, and with Bergoglio in particular," said Estela de la Cuadra, whose mother co-founded the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo activist group during the dictatorship to search for missing family members. "There are trials of all kinds now, and Bergoglio systematically refuses to support them."

Bergoglio twice invoked his right under Argentine law to refuse to appear in open court in trials involving torture and murder inside the feared Navy Mechanics School and the theft of babies from detainees. When he eventually did testify in 2010, his answers were evasive, human rights attorney Myriam Bregman told the AP.

Bergoglio's own statements proved church officials knew from early on that the junta was torturing and killing its citizens even as the church publicly endorsed the dictators, she said. "The dictatorship could not have operated this way without this key support," she said.

Rubin, a religious affairs writer for the Argentine newspaper Clarin, said Bergoglio actually took major risks to save so-called "subversives" during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, but never spoke about it publicly before his 2010 biography, "The Jesuit."

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